There is little doubt that Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (hereafter KTC) is a significant work. It has already garnered much attention online (see here, here, and here for a sampling). The book seeks to provide a third way between “covenant theology” and “dispensationalism” through an impressive collection of exegetical and theological investigations. Among conservative evangelical and confessional Christians in North America, any future discussion of the biblical doctrine of the covenant will be obligated to engage this thorough tour de force. While I will argue that this volume says nothing essentially new, it mixes together several ingredients of what is commonly called “New Covenant Theology” with a few holdouts from traditional Baptist covenant theology into an elegant cocktail (if my Baptist friends will pardon me) of exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. Agree or disagree, this is a wonderful achievement upon which many future conversations will be based. Whether it succeeds in setting forth a new approach that avoids the difficulties which traditionally accompany this discussion will be examined in this review.
KTC is divided into three parts:
In chapter 1, Wellum introduces the book as a whole. In it, he contends that while the Bible cannot be reduced to the theme of “covenant,” the latter provides the structure around which the entire Bible is ordered. Given that this is so, disagreement concerning how the various Scriptural covenants “fit together” inevitably spills over into various readings of the whole Biblical story and has a subsequent effect on various systematic theological formulations. “Correctly ‘putting together’ the biblical covenants is central to the doing of biblical and systematic theology and thus to the theological conclusions we draw from Scripture in many doctrinal areas” (23). Wellum briefly recounts the history of “biblical theology” from its precedent in Calvin and Cocceius through its liberal variant in Gabler and its orthodox instantiation in Vos and his exegetical heirs. He then takes up the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, concluding,
We think it is best to view biblical theology as primarily a hermeneutical discipline since it is the discipline which seeks to handle correctly the word of truth … This is why the conclusions of systematic theology must first be grounded in the exegetical conclusions of biblical theology. But then systematic theology goes further: on the basis of biblical theology it attempts to construct what we ought to believe from Scripture for today, to critique other theological proposals within the church, and also false ideas of alien worldviews outside the church, so that we learn to live anew under the lordship of Christ (36).
Whether or not one agrees with this particular construal of the theological encyclopedia, Wellum goes on to argue that both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism fail (despite their potential theoretical agreement with the above schema) to consistently build their theological systems on the Bible’s own internal structure and hermeneutical principles. He summarizes each school by focusing on a main theme. Dispensationalism focuses on the “land principle” for Israel, whereas Covenant theology makes the “genealogical principle” of Abraham and his descendants a controlling idea. Wellum seems most interested in discussing the implications of the unified “covenant of grace” on the classical Reformed understanding of the “church” as a mixed community which includes the children of believers (71–80), and the way in which this understanding of the covenant plays out in terms of the conditionality and unconditionality of the covenant throughout the biblical narrative. Specifically, Reformed Christians read the Abrahamic promise, “to you and your children” as a principle which extends across the covenants literally and without change, on account of the “unity” of an alleged overarching “covenant of grace.” Ironically, as Wellum mentions many times, both Dispensational and Covenant Theology are rooted in a similar absolutizing of one element of the Abrahamic covenant: the land promise for the former and the genealogical principle for the latter. Against both of these systems, Wellum argues the he and Gentry’s “kingdom through covenant” offer a better synthesis of the Biblical narrative and a via media between these two “traditional” readings of the story.
In the final portion of “Part One,” Wellum offers a series of hermeneutical reflections concerning how to “put together” the Scriptures. He discusses the nature of Scripture, its use of typology, the importance of understanding progressive revelation, and much more. He then identifies the key hermeneutical differences between Dispensational and Covenant Theology – their different prioritization of the Old and New testaments vis-à-vis one another, and their different reading of the nature of the covenants on their own terms – specifically the question of conditionality in its relation to various covenantal administrations. In response, Wellum propounds two important theses: “First … dividing up biblical covenants in terms of unconditional versus conditional is not correct” (120). Wellum argues (in a preliminary fashion) that both elements exist in a tension that is resolved in the perfect obedience of Christ. And this highlights his second thesis – “Second … what is missing in the covenantal discussion is a stronger emphasis on Christology … We contend that in order to grasp the unfolding nature of the biblical covenants we must first see that all of the covenants, including the various covenant mediators, find their ultimate telos and antitypical fulfilment in Christ and him alone” (ibid.). After discussing the use of typology in Covenant and Dispensational Theology, Wellum concludes the chapter (and Part One) with his and Gentry’s hermeneutical principles: “Each biblical covenant will first be placed in its own immediate context, then understood in terms of what comes before it in redemptive-history, and then finally what comes after it, ultimately in light of the entire Canon and the coming of Christ … In addition, as each covenant is treated and then related to the whole, we will also note the development of legitimate typological patterns as well” (126), viz. predominantly the land motif and the genealogical principle.
In “Part Two,” Gentry begins his discussion of the biblical development of “covenant” with an analysis of the use of berit ברית in the Hebrew Bible and its analogues in the Ancient Near East. In general, Gentry agrees with Gordon Hugenberger’s definition of covenant: “A covenant, in its normal sense, is an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath” (132). In the subsequent two chapters, Gentry takes up a discussion of the biblical covenants between God and Noah – and God and Adam. Gentry’s discussion of the Noahic covenant includes its parallels with the story of Adam and its focus on God’s design to uphold the created order, but a major portion of the chapter is devoted to the distinction (in Hebrew) between “establishing” and “cutting” a covenant (155–61). The first mention of “covenant” in the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 6:18) is a reference to “establishing” rather than “cutting” a covenant. Building upon William Dumbrell, and arguing against the recent work of Paul Williamson (Gentry’s arguments are founded upon his own survey of all the usages of the terms, research reflected in the appendix), Gentry argues that to “establish” a covenant implies the existence of a previous covenant which is now being “upheld.” To “cut” a covenant refers to the initiation of a covenant. This enables Gentry to launch into a discussion of God’s covenant with Adam, having built a strong case that the Bible clearly implies the existence of such a covenant. And here is the heart of their proposal: Adam was made in a covenant relationship with God, and He was meant to reflect God’s character toward the created order by ruling well and expanding the place of God’s presence (i.e. the garden) throughout the whole earth. In other words, “kingdom through covenant.” The final portion of the chapter details Adam’s failure as our covenant head, and Gentry follows this with a discussion of texts (e.g. Hosea 6:7) which seem to allude to a covenant with Adam later in Scripture (216–21).
In the next two chapters (223–99), Gentry discusses the Abrahamic covenant. Gentry argues that there is a biblical tension between the “unconditionality” and “conditionality” of all of the biblical covenants, a tension ultimately resolved in Jesus. Therefore, we ought not to impose the question of covenant “conditionality” or “unconditionality” on the text. Rather, recognize both elements and let the tension stand. The purpose of the Abrahamic covenant, of course, is to continue God’s program of “kingdom through covenant” by means of Abraham’s family. Through Abraham, God will re-establish His rule in covenant relationship with His people. And He will do this by means of their own response to the covenant. His unconditional promise will be fulfilled by their (conditional!) obedience. Gentry sees this tension as being finally resolved only in Jesus.
Gentry’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant (301–388) is not particularly surprising. He continues his argument that there are conditional and unconditional elements within the covenant. Gentry elegantly demonstrates (particularly on the basis of Exo. 19:5–6) that the Mosaic covenant carries forward God’s plan to rule creation aright through His covenant partners. In this case, Gentry notes the role of Israel as exemplars to the nations, given the charge of demonstrating to them how to love God, and to rule themselves rightly by caring for one another, and for God’s earth. This latter ecological emphasis is fascinating – and carefully acknowledges the particular redemptive-historical significance of the land of Israel – with larger applications. Gentry also works through the complex issues surrounding the continuity between the initial making of the Mosaic covenant and its ratification at the end of Exodus and re-establishment at the end of Deuteronomy (not to mention the cryptic “covenant with the Levites,” etc.). In so doing, he argues that there is only one Mosaic covenant.
The unity of the Mosaic covenant is important to emphasize, as it contextualizes the advent of God’s covenant with David, which Gentry treats next (389-427). The continual covenant establishments throughout Israel’s history testify to their continual failure to keep covenant with God. Israel’s unfaithfulness sets up their need for a representative (ultimately, a king) on whose shoulders the burden of “keeping covenant” would ultimately rest. David is the paradigmatic faithful king with whom God makes a covenant – narrowing His redemptive plan to find its accomplishment through His lineage – and through kingship. The hope of Israel now rests in a representative covenant partner, who will keep covenant with God and rule the world aright, who will further “kingdom through covenant.” Fascinatingly, Gentry goes on to argue that the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant still depends upon a son of David who is faithful to God. The point of the Solomonic narrative is precisely that he is not it. And so the “conditional” and “unconditional” tension remains. God unconditionally promises to accomplish His Adamic program through David, but that accomplishment depends upon a faithful king. And the history of Israel after David is simply a history of the failure of kings – and ultimately the exile of the whole nation.
Next comes the prophetic heralding of the new covenant. Gentry traces the biblical anticipation and fulfillment of the new covenant through four chapters (433-587). This includes extensive discussions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel’s famous “70 weeks,” and a final reflection on the new covenant community as described in Ephesians. It would be difficult to summarize all that Gentry covers in these chapters, but several points are salient. First, Gentry argues that the prophets anticipate a faithful king who will inaugurate the order of things that Adam failed to attain. Second, the new covenant will bring the full forgiveness of sins. Third, the new covenant land expands beyond the borders of Israel such that the place of God’s presence is not just Jerusalem or Israel, but the whole earth. Fourth, and very importantly, argues Gentry, the new covenant anticipates a shift in the structure and the nature (i.e. mixed-character) of the covenant community. With respect to the former, Gentry argues that Jeremiah’s prophecy (31:29: “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’”) anticipates a shift in the nature of mediators. In the new covenant, Christ alone is the covenant mediator – not a parent, king, or priest. This implies a shift in the new covenant with respect to the Abrahamic “genealogical principle.” With respect to the latter, Jeremiah 31:31-34 clear anticipates a time when Israel’s community will no longer be a mix of believers and unbelievers. That is, membership in the new covenant community will be inseparable from the full forgiveness of sins and faithful covenant partnership. This is very much unlike the mixed community of Israel, which had both believers and unbelievers. It is clear, however, that the faithfulness of the covenant community comes as a result of the forgiveness of sins (and given other prophecies) the more fundamental faithfulness of the new covenant Partner (singular!) and Mediator. Gentry concludes his biblical theological survey with a discussion of the covenantal backdrop for the language concerning the church community in Ephesians – especially the command to “speak the truth in love.” Gentry argues that here the church is encouraged to be, finally, that community which displays God’s righteousness and justice in covenant with its Lord.
The third and final part of KTC (written by Wellum) is comprised of two lengthy chapters, a biblical-theological summary and a chapter on the systematic-theological implications of all of the above. In the final chapter, Wellum outlines several systematic-theological implications of he and Gentry’s proposal (with a footnoted promise for more in the future). First, in terms of theology proper, Wellum argues that the covenant-making God is Himself “covenantal.” Quoting Michael Horton, Wellum concurs, “‘God’s very existence is covenantal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion to each other, reaching outward beyond the Godhead to create a community of creatures serving as a giant analogy of the Godhead’s relationship’” (655). Earlier in the book, Gentry states (but does not develop) that “covenant is intrinsic to the being of God himself” (164). Wellum then moves on to Christology. The development of the biblical storyline indicates that a faithful covenant partner is needed, but that only God can save humanity. This points in the direction of the God-man, Christ (657-63). In respect of the work of Christ specifically, Wellum discusses the implications for their proposal on the issues of Christ’s active obedience (663-70) and the extent of the atonement (670-83). The tension between God’s unconditional promise and its fulfillment in the Person of a faithful covenant partner is finally resolved in the obedience of Christ for His people in His incarnation, life, and death. Wellum argues for particular redemption by pointing to the unity of Christ’s work as our Priest and covenant Mediator. Among other things, Wellum points out that Jesus is selected as the Mediator for a particular people and that these people are not a “mixed community.” There is no separation in Christ between the accomplishment and the application of redemption with respect to His intent to save. This is another way in which Wellum argues against a “mixed character” understanding of the new covenant. If Jesus is the Mediator for the new covenant, and the new covenant includes unbelievers, then Jesus does not fully save some members of the new covenant, making His covenant mediatorship and effectiveness little different from that of the old covenant.
Finally, Wellum discusses the loci of ecclesiology and eschatology (683-716). In the former he disagrees with Covenant Theology. And in the latter, he disagrees with Dispensationalism. On ecclesiology, Wellum repeats the earlier insistence that the new covenant anticipates a change in both the nature and structure of the new community – and he ties this to the pouring out the Spirit on “all” the people in the new covenant community – fulfilled at Pentecost. This involves a redemptive-historical shift in the nature of God’s people. While God’s people are one throughout the ages, their nature and structure change as God continues His program – the climax of which is inaugurated in the new covenant. The New Testament church is a regenerate community which is entered by faith – and this stands in stark contrast the mixed character of Israel, which had the composition of any other national people. Wellum argues that this ecclesiology cannot be maintained consistently alongside the practice of paedobaptism. Baptism is a sign of entrance into union with Christ by faith – and a public confession logically precedes this marker being put on a person. When it comes to eschatology, Wellum argues that one cannot just appeal (as with the Dispensationalists) to the unconditional promise of the land to Abraham, but rather, biblical exegesis needs to employ the land motif the way the Bible develops it throughout. Crucially, the land promised to Abraham needs to be developed against the backdrop of the Garden of Eden, which contextualizes the significance and meaning of the land promise, and then trace the promise as it develops through Israel’s history, the prophets, and the new covenant. In the end, the land is the place of man’s right rule and God’s presence. The land promise is ultimately fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. This both includes present Jerusalem but also implies the “Jerusalem-ization” of the whole earth! It means God’s kingdom covering the earth, being ruled over by God’s redeemed people. In a phrase, “kingdom through covenant.”
There is much to be said in praise of this book. Several disputed issues of biblical exegesis receive high quality linguistic analysis. There is no better defense of an Adamic covenant than this volume. It is hard to imagine a better discussion of hermeneutics than can be found in Wellum’s introductory section. The biblical theological section is exciting – especially as one sees it all point to Christ and His work. There are also solid treatments of Jesus’ active obedience, the meaning of the image of God, the Davidic covenant, and the Dispensational “land” theology. This book is full of biblical and theological gems, and indeed, the proposal of “kingdom through covenant” is a wonderful way of capturing the biblical drama, and it is wonderfully developed here – according to well-articulated and defended principles and with, sometimes, a wonderful sense of its theological implications. The order of theological priorities is refreshing: exegesis, biblical-theology, systematic-theology – all in conversation with the history of theology and exegesis. This is excellent stuff!
That said, I must register several criticisms. I will move (very roughly speaking) from the least to the most important issues. And I hope these criticisms can be read in the spirit with which they are offered, that of genuine appreciation for all the insight I have gained.
1. Though I searched, I could not find the new or unique aspect of this proposal. There are several instances in the volume wherein the authors speak of their view as though it were substantially different from what has previously been argued, as a “third way” between traditional Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. But there are many particular theologies that explicitly put themselves “in the middle” on precisely this construal of the alleged spectrum. No particular argument is truly new. “Kingdom through covenant” is more of a unique amalgam than a new “system.”
2. The authors treat Covenant Theology as a mostly monolithic entity. But in the history of Reformed theology, Covenant Theology is actually quite diverse (not to mention the Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and miscellaneous varieties). There are plenty of covenant theologians who would agree with these authors’ view of “conditionality” and “unconditionality” with respect to the biblical covenants – and plenty who would disagree. And while the authors may have a point that an overarching “covenant of grace” cannot be found in Scripture, one must recognize that this paradigm is not always imposed upon Scripture viciously, but simply functions as a theological convention used to talk about the unity of the covenants – a unity our authors recognize. O. Palmer Robertson, for instance, in his classic Christ of the Covenants, speaks extensively about those things which divide the various individual covenants from one another and those things which tie them together. One can speak about the covenants in terms of their diversity and in terms of their unity. Even if it would be more appropriate to speak simply of the “unity of the (plural) covenants” rather than an overarching “covenant of grace,” there is nothing interesting that depends upon the latter.
3. That said, it is important to note that the traditional category “covenant of grace” is not wholly without Biblical precedent. The Psalmist writes,
He has remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations; the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac. Then He confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion of your inheritance” (Ps. 105:8-11).
The rest of the Psalm clearly indicates that “Israel” here is the historic nation – as it recalls the history of God’s dealings with His people. It would appear that we have precedent here for seeing the covenants as united in “substance” (to invoke the old Reformed qualifier), without collapsing all their diversity into one another.
4. Our authors do not carefully keep the “kinship with non-natural relatives” aspect of the covenant always before them. Confusingly, Gentry speaks of God as covenantal in Himself. This seems impossible. “Covenant” is a way of binding genuine “others” together. This seems impossible for reasons pertaining to the meaning of “covenant” as such (as outlined by Frank Moore Cross, Scott Hahn, and Gordon Hugenburger – and their emphasis on “binding” with non-relatives). Adam can be seen as a son of God covenantally precisely because He is other than God – and not “naturally” a part of Him. The relationship is elective and they are bound together by God’s words and oaths (stated or implied). Similarly, Gentry seems to negate this element of covenant when he describes natural family relationships as “covenantal” (in a passing reference on 142).
5. To say that Covenant Theology does not sufficiently relate all of the covenants to Christ is, quite frankly, odd. It does so in precisely the same way these authors do, with some substantive disagreements about precisely how certain elements of the Old Testament are related to Jesus and the new covenant. But this is not a disagreement about the hermeneutical principles summarized above. It is a disagreement about the exegetical data that these principles attempt to interpret.
6. Wellum’s defense of particular redemption is somewhat reductionist. His description of “modified Calvinism” (i.e. Jesus died to secure the certain salvation of the elect while making possible the salvation of all) fails to account for the several nuanced perspectives on the atonement that can stand in between this brief description, and say, the particular perspective of a John Owen, for instance. As a good bit of Reformed historical scholarship is uncovering (Richard Muller, Jonathan Moore, etc), there are several varieties of Reformed atonement theory which do not neatly fit in either of these boxes. Wellum seems unaware of the actual historical record here.
7. Gentry and Wellum persuasively argue that there is a tension between the unconditional and conditional elements of each of the covenants. However, they do not fully persuade me that this tension is felt in the same way throughout the various covenants. Certainly one can argue that Abraham was required to obey God in response to God’s love, and one can argue that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises depended upon Abraham’s children being circumcised, for instance (the failure of which would lead to being “cut off” from the people). But Abraham is portrayed in redemptive history as faithful. Indeed, God’s promises in Genesis 22 seem to be a response to Abraham. This is captured in later biblical language concerning God’s keeping covenant “for the sake” of Abraham (for instance, Psalm 105: 40-45). Likewise, Noah is portrayed as faithful. David is portrayed as faithful and as the ideal king. Certainly there is a tension in each of these cases between the biblical description of their “blamelessness,” what we know about their many sins – and nevertheless their apparent coming out on the “covenantal top.” But however you slice the relationship between the unconditional and conditional elements of the covenant, things are different with Moses. Like Adam, Israel and Moses come out on the “covenantal bottom” (Hosea 6:7). Indeed, John Sailhamer (with whom these authors oddly don’t interact much) has spent a career arguing that this is part of the entire message of the Pentateuch. Abraham, while sinful, is seen as covenantally faithful. Moses, by contrast (for all his greatness) is condemned via the covenant such that he is not permitted to enter the land. Similarly with David. While King David is a sinner, he is seen as faithful to his Lord, while all the kings after him end in failure. It seems to me that while this conditional/unconditional tension exists throughout the narrative, and while our authors argue that this tension is resolved in the active obedience of Christ, they fail to note that these tensions are resolved differently with respect to Jesus’ obedience. Adam, Israel, and the post-Davidic kings stands as negative types of Christ’s active obedience. Noah, Abraham, and David stand as positive types of Jesus’ active obedience.
What is it precisely about Moses that makes the difference? Sailhamer offers a variety of a rather old Reformed answer. Namely, Moses is burdensome. This seems to be what Peter says at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:10). In Romans and Galatians, Paul is clear that the law seems to get in the way of the promise of God to Abraham – because it only increases the trespass of Adam. And yet, as Paul explains, it is still a basically gracious covenant because it is meant to teach Israel (precisely through its burdensome quality) that there is something wrong with Israel. It brings their Adamic qualities to the surface. It is given to God’s people in their infancy until the time of freedom – when many of the burdensome elements of the law are abrogated (Gal. 4:1-11).
That is to say, the burdensome aspect of the Mosaic law was twofold. The addition of many laws exacerbated and demonstrated the nature of Israel’s problem. But secondly, apart from the inheritance of the Spirit, the giving of the many laws also kept the child Israel in check (externally) until God would give His mature people the gift of the Spirit – by which they would freely obey the essential moral law from the heart (the distinctively Mosaic features being no longer necessary). The failure of Judaizers was that they thought of the Mosaic law as pushing the redemptive program to its conclusion by means of their obedience – while Paul understood that it did precisely the opposite. It both kept God’s people in check (the way rules keep an unruly child from wandering too far) but also revealed the inability of human beings to ultimately carry out the conditions of the covenant such that the final chapter in God’s program would be inaugurated. Israel is the ultimately historical pedagogy for the world. The significance of receiving the Holy Spirit in the new covenant is not just that we have power to obey (in contrast to the inability of the law to make us obey) – but also that the presence of the Spirit represents the inauguration of that final order of things which God’s people pursued, but could never attain. That is why it is Jesus who gives us the Spirit, because He has attained that final goal and He dispenses the Spirit (and obedience with Him) to us as a gift.
8. And now we get to what many presume this book to be the definitive word on: infant baptism. In my judgment, our authors have not made a persuasive case against a Reformed doctrine of children – children being a larger issue than infant baptism as such. And that for several reasons. (1) Our authors continually focus on the “genealogical principle” of the Abrahamic covenant as though that, in conjunction with an imposed “covenant of grace,” constitutes the main case for infant baptism. Not so. The genealogical principle is not rooted in Abraham, but in creation. God called Adam and his posterity to the creation task. Adam’s whole family gives God sacrifice. God saved Noah and his children from the flood. God called Abraham and all that was Abraham’s out of Ur. And the promises of the new covenant continue to be for us and our children (Acts 2:39). In the history of God’s dealings, God has always visibly related to His people along the lines of created structures. Why? Because God is saving creation! When God calls a man to a task or gives a man an identity, He calls that man’s family to a task. When He makes promises, the promises belong to all that is that person’s. This is because God is relating to creation precisely as He made it. The tendency of the discussion to focus on Abraham is not because the “genealogical principle” starts with Abraham, but because we find the sacrament of circumcision there – and the locus of the debate is on the sacraments. But even if that is the typical location of the debate, the essential issue is our view of children and objective corporate identity. A biblical theology of infant baptism is rooted in a biblical theology of children and objective covenantal identity. Once the latter is clearly understood, the objective marker of baptism follows quite naturally.
(2) Even apart from this overall theological construct, our authors do not deal with the evidence in the New Testament concerning children. They are holy (1 Cor. 7:14). Paul addresses them in Christ (Eph. 6:1). Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to them (Mat. 19:14) and later many Jews heard Peter say “to you and your children” (Acts 2:39). Significantly, this latter instance is right after Pentecost, when you would expect these communal structures to be changed– if our authors’ view was correct. Whatever we can do with the grammar of the Acts passage, it seems unimaginable that Jews in the first century would hear the phrase “to you and your children” in any way that is different than what we find in the Old Testament.
(3) And this negates our authors’ contention that the “nature” and “structure” of the new covenant community is predicted to change. Their interpretation of Jeremiah 31 as predicting a time when the nature of covenant mediatorship would change (per the “teeth set on the edge” proverb) fails to account for the fact that that very same proverb is condemned by God on the terms of the old covenant in Ezekiel 18! That is to say, whatever is being condemned is Jeremiah 31 with that proverb is just condemnable, not an indication of a redemptive-historical shift. With respect to the more famous quotation in Jeremiah 31, our authors note that the “mixed character” of Israel will be changed in the new covenant community – and that it therefore cannot involve the same “family-like” quality of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. We know this, it would seem, because our current new covenant experience (qua our families) is of a “mixed character” quality. Thus, Jeremiah’s prediction of no “mixed character” to the new covenant would suggest that the family-like aspect of the new covenant community has ceased.
But this fails to interpret the passage as an Old Testament saint looking forward. The passage, by itself, says nothing about any shift in the structure of the covenant community. It mentions “fathers,” “brothers,” and “neighbors” (Jer 31:31-34). An Old Testament saint looking forward would have anticipated a community which looked quite a bit like their own (i.e. a real human community) but which was entirely redeemed. That we don’t experience this yet only suggests one thing: it hasn’t happened yet. The lack of “mixed character” is an aspect of heaven to which we look forward. Even the use of Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8 and 10 is a use which underscores the finality of forgiveness and the presence of the eschatological Spirit. The author of Hebrews simply does not highlight the shift away from a “mixed character” community in the new covenant. Indeed, Hebrews 3, 6, and 10 (not to mention 1 Corinthians 10 and the letters to the churches in Rev. 1-3) speak to the church in a very “mixed character” way – precisely because the new covenant community is not fully purified. Certainly the visible community of Israel failed. And while we can have high hopes for the visible church (as the author to the Hebrews does, Heb. 6:9), we nevertheless have to recognize that we do not yet have all of the benefits of the new covenant. Even the Spirit in our hearts has not yet produced full obedience. We still sin. We still have bodies which are dying. We still await the final reign of Christ, the death of death, the resurrection of the body, and the un-mixed character of the covenant community. What we do not await is the full forgiveness of sins, the universalization of the Spirit (which seems to be the author of Hebrews’ focus), and the inaugural tastes of all of these eschatological gifts which are secured for us precisely by this forgiveness. While we still sin, the Spirit works in our hearts. While our body is dead, we have resurrection life in our souls, and while our community is mixed, we know that the Holy Spirit works in the visible church in a way so as to preserve it and make it victorious in a way that Israel never was. Indeed, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it! But these are tastes of the final thing – the already of the not-yet, which the prophets (as they typically did) smashed together.
9. Furthermore, the mixed character of the church just is the reality that everyone experiences. There is no such thing as “regenerate” church-membership in the real world. There is membership by “profession of faith,” sure– but Reformed persons have always been expectant about the profession of faith in their children. (In fact, most paedobaptist churches have a sort of minor/major distinction between their members, with the “profession of faith” being the qualification for full member status.) We cannot actually know what is going on between Christ and an individual soul, but we can know what Jesus says objectively: that He calls us and our children, and that He promises to work His word into all of our lives. The subjective is purely a product of faith.
Is the fear that letting our children be baptized and calling them Christians will create nominalism? Quite frankly, that is (a) to fail to trust Jesus’ promises and (b) certainly not the fear of the New Testament. The character of so many of the New Testament churches make it quite clear that the “entrance threshold” was not particularly high– baptism and basic confession, of the sort that a child could make (and would make!) quite early in a Christian home. The New Testament gets tough after confession, not before it. You claim Jesus? Then live like it! It shakes us by our baptism far more often that it asks us to question our election. The advantage of this former strategy is that the New Testament constantly appeals (to seemingly nominal folks; think Corinth!) to the love of Christ and His already-demonstrated love for them as an encouragement to perseverance. And when people fall away, this is seen as a betrayal of Jesus’ objective word and sacrament and community ministry to them. Certainly we can theologize about how they never “really” had this or that (union with Christ, etc), but we cannot say that God never spoke to them in word and sacrament and the church-community’s love. But this also means that every member of a visible church has something concrete to hold onto, and it is precisely these concrete things that Christ has given us so that we can lay hold of Him by faith in our souls.
In the end, a biblical theology of children will help us minister to adults. It is not accidental that a church which excludes children from baptism also has a legacy of adults questioning whether or not they are elect or regenerate. But the sacraments are God’s promises with our name on them. The confession of our children is God’s design, the same way that we teach our children to pledge allegiance to the flag. Jesus delights in these childish confessions, because ultimately ours are no different. What is “really going on” in the heart is not something we can see– unless the objective reality of unbelief is so obvious that it calls for church discipline. But that assumes one is “in” in the first place. Romans 9 through 11 preserve this tension well. Not all Israel was Israel and, when this came to a particular head, Israel was “broken off” from the visible tree of God’s people. Gentiles were added but Paul threatens (as John does in Revelation) that they can be broken off as well. This is all very “visible community” sounding, and this is consistent with (indeed, it implies!) the continuity of God’s dealings with His people in terms of familial structure throughout covenantal history. Again, this is all because the covenant is rooted in creation, and creation is precisely what God is redeeming. The tension between visible and invisible is a tension that exists because of the fall. It is only in the new heavens and new earth that this will be fully resolved. Until then, we take the confession of our children seriously, and we minister the gospel to them and take their child-like reception of it in the same way that our Lord did. To be clear, this does not mean that all our children are actually regenerated, but that is precisely the point. In this fallen world, where we can only judge by the profession of faith, we baptize our children according to God’s promise, to which a normal Christian child will respond in public confession– in the same way that they learn anything else. Only, because of God’s promise, we believe that His mighty saving word is working along the track of nature, but with supernatural power.
10. In my judgment, however, the most egregious theological error in the book comes in its treatment of the doctrine of God. Though it is only stated in passing, and more clearly by Gentry than Wellum (note the quote above), we cannot speak of “covenant” as essential to God without either changing the definition of “covenant” or changing the definition of “God.” The triune God, in Himself, is one divine Being who, in the classic orthodox formulation, has only one will and mode of operation (in which the subsistent Persons simultaneously participate). That is, the “will of the Son” and “will of the Father” are not one in terms of agreement, but one in terms of existence. They have the same will! The Father and Son are Persons, but not People (in the sense that we speak of separate individuals with different sets of faculties relating to one another). This is a great mystery. Furthermore, the relation of the Father and the Son is essential to the being of God – not an elected covenantal relation. Covenant implies “otherness,” and is (consequently) only meaningful in terms of the created order. Even the arguable “covenant of redemption” must be rendered in terms of the eternally anticipated addition of Jesus’ human nature– or at least in terms of “covenantal properties” which God takes on in relation to the created order. Some theologians have not been careful on this point, but the classical doctrine of God hinges on getting this right. To be charitable, my guess is that this would be rephrased if our authors were confronted with its implications. The lack of space devoted to it suggests as much. At its most basic, any orthodox construal of the pactum salutis must pertain to the Trinitarian economy in relation to creation, not to the divine being in itself.
By way of final commentary, this book is excellent where it is excellent, but rather reductionistic and misleading as it pertains to the systematic-theological implications. These criticisms, however, do not detract from the overall value of the work. It is ideally suited for people who want to work through the issues of “putting the Bible” together. Even where you disagree, the many valuable discussions in this book cannot be overlooked. And again, even where I personally disagree with the authors’ theological deductions, it is only in accordance with their own theological and hermeneutical principles. And for this reason, I would argue that KTC is far more of a conversation starter than stopper. And for that, we can all be very thankful to these brothers, and I believe we will benefit from their hard work for many years to come.